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New York car hobbyist dies in house fire

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Tom Sullivan and his daughter Mairead, 14, stand next to his 1977 Toyota Celica during the 2011 Greenwich Concours International.

Tom Sullivan and his daughter Mairead, 14, stand next to his 1977 Toyota Celica during the 2011 Greenwich Concours International.

A Toyota Celica tale with a tragic twist

By Gregg D. Merksamer

Last week, New York metro area newspapers and TV stations covered the horrible details of an early-morning, May 1 house fire in Carmel, N.Y., that claimed the life of Larchmont, N.Y., P.D. Capt. Thomas Sullivan, his wife, Donna, and two teenaged daughters, Mairead and Meaghen, with the sole survivor of the blaze being the family's 20-year-old son Thomas Jr.

Incredibly, in my capacity as the event's staff photographer and the New York regional correspondent for OLD CARS WEEKLY, I met and interviewed Thomas Sr. and his younger daughter Mairead at the 2011 Greenwich Concours International last June, after being capitivated by the incredibly well-preserved 1977 Toyota Celica GT Liftback they had placed on the show field at Roger Sherman Baldwin Park with just 9,848 miles accumulated on the odometer. Though there were at least a hundred more-exotic classics on exhibit including Lamborghinis and Ferraris, Sullivan's Celica really caught my attention as you almost NEVER see Toyotas this old in such superb original condition!

After introducing himself as a police captain in Larchmont, Sullivan told me “I saw this at a local service station four years ago, and have been trying to get it for three years. The original owner, a fellow named Bill Crawford, bought it brand new in November 1976 at Toyota City of Mamaroneck (N.Y.), and decided at the age of 88 he was getting too old to drive it. He’d reached the stage long ago where he had it mostly for entertainment, having gone just nine miles between two annual inspections.”

He also declared to me, referring to his 14-year-old daughter Mairead (whose name, he added, was Gaelic for Margaret), “If any of my three kids get to drive it, it’ll be her because she spent the day waxing it yesterday.”

As we talked further, Capt. Sullivan detailed that he also owned a white, first-year 1990 Mazda Miata and a 1978 Datsun 280Z that Yutaka “Mr. K” Katayama autographed on the glove box door at an Albany area Z-car meeting.

“I’ve always had a penchant for Japanese cars,” he explained. “Growing up, my sister’s boyfriend had a (Toyota) Corolla I thought was neat because it was different. When I started driving a 1973 Camaro, my best friend from Franciscan High School in Mohegan Lake, N.Y., had a 1972 (Datsun) 240Z, and I begged him to trade.”

At shows, he added, the Celica is “well received” in spite of the anti-Japanese bias one might expect from older hobbyists; “I hear a lot of people saying ‘this was my car in high school,’ or ‘this was my girlfriend’s first car.’ Most people can’t believe one this good is still around, because they all rusted away. When the original owner sold it to me, he made me promise that I would never drive it in the winter. He’s still alive, and almost 91 years old now. I invited him here today but he couldn’t come.”

Though the 2011 Greenwich Concours was the only time I ever met Thomas or Mairead Sullivan, it was obvious, looking back on the photos I took of them that sunny Sunday, that they hailed from an extremely close-knit family. In spite of everyone and everything that was lost in this unfathomable tragedy, I was absolutely stunned to see in News12 Hudson Valley TV footage this classic Celica miraculously sitting, only slightly damaged, in the driveway beside the ruins of the house.

Once so many other more-important things are settled, perhaps enthusiasts within the old car hobby - possibly teaming with Toyota Motors Sales U.S.A. or its New York area dealers - should reach out to Thomas Sullivan Jr. and offer to help him restore the car in his family's memory, with high hopes that the kindnesses we can extend as relative strangers will give him some strength and comfort as he goes forth.

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